by Deirdre Frost
Captivated by the rolling hills, forests and patchwork of vineyards full of lush grapevines, my journey to the Champagne Region of France is heightened by the sounds, sights, and smells of the spectacular countryside as the train travels from Paris to the Champagne-Ardennes.
This adventure is heightened by the vivid landscape of lush, green vineyards creating a striking contrast against a dark blue sky in the Champagne region that conjures up bright images, like those featured in a Chagall painting.
I associate the region with the effervescence of this sparkling wine that appeals to all senses, especially in creating a sensory and emotional experience unlike any other. Like Puck in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, one wishes to pluck this magical potion titillating the senses for a memorable experience. It’s time to engage in the art of winemaking and catch a glimpse of the craftsmanship through the lens of local producers as I travel around the region.
All of the rolling vineyards, chateaux, and quaint villages are exquisite characteristics of this charming landscape that represents the Champagne region. The precious “terroir” consists of rows and rows of cultivars providing an endless, blanket of green.
Modern Viticulture – Environmental, Economic and Social Effects
The viticulture depends on a delicate balance between the grape growers and the producers, whose combined efforts are critical for bringing wine to market.
For greater insight, I ask wine expert, Philippe Wibrotte of the Comité Champagne, about the inherent risks and challenges that growers and producers experience in winemaking. The slope and soil, he says, have to be in prime condition for the vines to grow effective root systems. These conditions pose challenges since there is no irrigation and there is a limited area for grape cultivation and that affects the supply within the region. The weather and climate also present concerns, and the growers and producers are constantly looking for ways to create value, said Philippe.
Exploration of Champagne Houses
A variety of Champagne Houses, including a few small producers, are among some of the best in the region. One of these rising stars is Sophie Cossy who manages her own Champagne House, Champagne F Cossy, with her female business partner.
She produces champagne in the tiny village of Jouy-Les-Reims, where she grew up working in her parents’ winemaking business. Since taking over her family business, she has initiated a dramatic increase of production from 2,000 bottles per year to yielding over 60,000 bottles per year.
Under Sophie’s guidance, I examine the leaves of these flowering vines to discern whether these varietals are chardonnay, pinot noir or meunier. To identify the varietal, we take a few samples to look more closely at the leaf shapes and in many ways, I feel just like a botanist verifying certain specimens. In discussing land management, Sophie explains a variety of techniques that include traditional methods, such as using a horse for tillage, as well as employing modern sustainable practices to improve soil quality. One of her main concerns is the impact of climate change on cultivation. A warmer climate means faster plant growth, resulting in an early harvest, possibly towards the end of August. Climate change influences not only the harvest but also affects the timing for processing the grapes and bottling the wine at the local cooperative. Working with the winemaker, Sophie blends the various vintages for producing quality wine.
At her Champagne House, one of the most enjoyable parts of my visit is tasting champagne from three glasses set out in a diagonal line. Among the most popular selections is the Cuvée Origine, a Premier Cru, along with Cuvée Vielles Vignes, a vintage champagne from her oldest vines and The Cuvée Sophistiquée 2009, which was recognized as an outstanding harvest and a fine year for Champagne.
After leaving this tiny village I travel to Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, which is also the home of Champagne Jean-Louis Vergnon. This small hamlet highlights a war memorial and partially empty town hall along with other relics that evoke family and friendships in the face of past war and struggle. In a quiet moment, I remember the fallen with the poppies in the fields and realize how the modern world of viticulture is closely linked with the past. This makes my experiences so special, recognizing how the village producers retain the beauty of their surroundings while making wine.
Dom Perignon – Inventor of Modern Champagne
The drive to Hautvillers is a colorful journey through pristine winemaking villages and countryside that surprisingly is untouched by the passing of time. On the outskirts, a slope provides breathtaking views of the hillsides and vineyards below. In Hautvillers, the birthplace of champagne, it is possible to visit the village church to pay homage to the legendary Dom Perignon, the father of champagne, who is the inventor of the Champagne method.
The irony is, according to local sources, that Dom Perignon, in fact, spent most of his life trying to remove the bubbles out of champagne. His memorable quote “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” is supposedly what Perignon said when tasting the first sparkling champagne in the late 17th century. Truly paradoxical is that this humble monk concocted an elixir of life that appeals to wine lovers, including the present Queen of England who enjoys a flute of champagne at bedtime every night.
In this rural region, conversations undoubtedly turn to the subject of champagne. In curiosity, I ask the question: “When you are ready to drink champagne, is the bottle twisted or is the cork?” A man from Reims shakes his head and merely says, “Simply, twist the bottle and not the cork for a smooth opening” and then walks away. In making my way to Reims Cathedral, I wonder whether it really matters how to open the champagne, as long as it leads to drinking it!
Reims Cathedral’s Magnificence
The magnificent Gothic cathedral is a landmark in French history, especially at the center of the nave the French inscription that marks the place where all the Kings of France have been crowned since 987.
In the very front of the cathedral, the Chagall stained glass windows radiate with a serene, bright light and a heavenly glow.
Life in Reims
Immersed in the culture, the boulevard from the Cathedral leads to one of the most fashionable bistros in the city called the Café du Palais. I enjoy champagne and local specialties with others and reflect on the avant-garde artwork and the art décor glass roof.
The city center’s accessibility to the shopping district and the many restaurants highlight the local way of life. From this central location of Reims, the Champagne Region can be easily reached for touring and visiting the famous Champagne Houses.
A visit to Champagne Pommery has a way of dispelling any preconceived notions about winemaking. The Champagne House’s flamboyant architecture reflects Madame Pommery’s high-spirited and creative style that was legendary in champagne circles in the 19th century.
Just about everything at Pommery is beyond expectation, including the sheer size of this grand dame’s castle. A visit to the wine caves is as much of an adventure as savoring the classic brut champagne.
For further details, see the following:
Office de Tourisme de Reims
Champagne F Cossy
Champagne Jean-Louis Vergnon
Hotel de la Cathedrale
Café du Palais